Alan Davies AM, Minister for Natural Resources and Food
I would like to update members on the latest position on the incidents of contamination of beef products that first came to the attention of the Welsh Government on 15th January this year.
From the time when the first incident was reported it became clear that we needed to co-ordinate activity across the appropriate agencies and build an effective mechanism to address the varying aspects of the problem. It has been a difficult time for all parts of the meat industry and many businesses have suffered because of the potential negligence or criminality of a tiny minority. I understand that police investigations are ongoing.
The safety of the food we eat is paramount to our health and wellbeing. It is the authenticity of food that builds confidence in the mind of the consumer and consequently loyalty to a product or a brand. Labelling should never be misleading. If the pack says beef it must be beef, not pork, or chicken, or horsemeat.
Thankfully, the horsemeat incidents did not present a particular food safety issue, but they did pose a major food authenticity concern. Misleading consumers is inexcusable whether it is profit-motivated, or happens as a result of gross inefficiency. The contamination incidents and associated media coverage affected consumer confidence which impacted on the sales of meat, and beef specifically.
I will do all I can to ensure that we guard against future such incidents to protect both consumers and the meat sector which is a major contributor to the Welsh economy. Red meat production contributes over 40% of the annual total value of Welsh agricultural output. Some 12,000 farms are involved in beef production which in turn supports the agricultural supply and meat processing industries. The PGI status of Welsh Beef is something to be proud of and is an effective way of boosting beef sales at home and abroad.
In this context I think it is essential to learn appropriate lessons from the way we responded to the recent contamination incidents here in Wales. Defra, Scotland and the FSA are undertaking reviews which will include probing into the systems in place to ensure food chain integrity to see if they could be strengthened. I have stated that the Welsh Government will cooperate fully in these important reviews. I see this co-operation as important because our food supply chain is complex and stretches beyond our borders. Consumers here are affected by what happens elsewhere. I will do all I can to ensure the integrity of the food chain. I am aware that this will include working with Governments across the UK and in the EU to do our utmost to protect consumers.
I have asked officials to undertake a review of the response made to the horsemeat incidents by all the relevant Welsh authorities. I have been encouraged by the close and co-operative working that quickly developed between the Welsh Government, the UK Government, the FSA and the WLGA. It soon became clear that such incidents were also happening beyond our borders. Enforcement agencies across Europe linked up to act where appropriate. In my view actions were taken quickly and correctly. This established co-operation is set to continue but we can always learn lessons. This is why I have instigated a review to improve our preparedness in the event of future food standards concerns. I will be reporting on the key lessons learned in July.
At a meeting with my UK Ministerial colleagues in London on Monday, it was agreed that collectively we would seek further reassurances from the European Commission regarding the action already being taken and also due to be instigated across the EU. Consumers rightly want to see action taken at all levels to safeguard the food we eat. I will provide further updates to the Assembly as additional information becomes available.